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Blue Heron EcoHaus: Let Construction Begin

After months of sweating every detail, the owners watch as the excavator gets to work

Posted on Mar 17 2016 by Kent Earle

Editor's note: Kent Earle and his wife, Darcie, write a blog called Blue Heron EcoHaus, documenting their journey “from urbanites to ruralites” and the construction of a superinsulated house on the Canadian prairies. Their previous blog on GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com was called Picking High-Performance Windows. The blog below was originally published in May 2015.

On May 8, 2015, construction began. The night before we spent some time at the building site taking in the pristine landscape for one last time before it became a decimated countryside for the next year (or likely more). However, nothing could have prepared us for what we were going to see the next day.

The morning came and the excavator was there at 7:30 a.m. I had a lot of paranoia about the depth of the basement. (Little did I know how this would come to haunt us later). I had heard several stories of excavators not digging basements deep enough — at times even going 3 feet too short and leaving an awkward-looking house poking out of the ground.

I did not want a pimple on the prairies. We wanted our house to hug into the land and looking like it fit. We wanted to be able to walk from the grass to the house and only have to take a single step in. Because of that we had to dig the basement deep. Like really deep.

Perils of a very deep basement

Before building, we had to have a geotechnical survey of our land. Fortunately, the previous owners had already had one done (with a $5,000 price I was glad to know it was thrown in already). You see, even though we were 180 feet from the river and about 60 feet up from the water, there is still a risk of the land heaving. There isn’t much concern of erosion since we are on the concave side of the river bend and any erosion would happen on the other bank. Nonetheless, the survey said we had to have concrete pilings and a structural slab basement.

As a result, the basement depth was affected by the following: walk-in main level, pilings, structural slab, 8 inches of under-slab EPSExpanded polystyrene. Type of rigid foam insulation that, unlike extruded polystyrene (XPS), does not contain ozone-depleting HCFCs. EPS frequently has a high recycled content. Its vapor permeability is higher and its R-value lower than XPS insulation. EPS insulation is classified by type: Type I is lowest in density and strength and Type X is highest. insulation (R-32), 9-foot ceiling, interior grade beam, and interior I-joists. All of this added up to a basement that was a whopping 11 feet underground at the back. That’s deep.

Going down: Footings are supported by two dozen concrete piers 12 inches in diameter, some as deep as 22 feet.

As he was digging, the excavator told the project manager he had never dug a basement that deep before.

Getting home that night and seeing the hole in the ground was shocking. My first thought was, “Oh my God, our beautiful site is a mess!” Followed by, “Holy sh*t, that is a mountain of dirt!” Followed by, “What in the world are we going to do with all of it?” And lastly, “Whoa, that’s where our house is going!”

It was surreal looking at that hole and realizing that we had made that happen. There was no more talking. Now we had some serious action.

Due to the depth of the basement, the excavator had to dig a ramp so that the piling truck could drive into the site. Early the next week, 24 pilings were dug. Half of them were 22 feet deep and the other half were 18 deep. Incredible! There was no seepage and no water found, but they said that the clay they dug up was as thick as concrete.

Taylor from EcoSmart Developments (our contractor) was champing at the bit to get going. The same day that the pilings went in, he and his partner, Curtis, had the pilings filled with concrete and supported with rebar. The following day he had the void forms around the pilings and the forms built for the footing. And before the end of the week, we had the concrete poured for the footings and ready to cure for the weekend. The rapid progress, in one week, was amazing. We had the thought that this just might go faster than we had expected.

That is, until the septic contractor came by the site and with horror asked, “What have you done?! Why is this basement so deep?”

Oh no.

The septic hits the fan

Oh boy, the excitement and speediness of the week prior came to a screeching halt when our project manager called notifying me that the septic contractor had not realized the depth of our basement. He would have to recalculate the cost of our septic system and get back to us. But he estimated the cost of this “mistake” (the basement being overdug) would be $12,000!

I immediately felt sick to my stomach. The next three nights were completely sleepless. Over those days (and nights) I read more and learned more about septic tanks then anyone ever should. As the septic contractor told me, the maximum depth of a septic tank is 9 feet (meaning 9 feet of soil coverage).

Our basement was 11 feet and then with the clear-out drain from the house this would put it at 12 feet. Three feet deeper then the maximum depth. This meant that he would have to get a “deep burial tank” specially fabricated to twice the thickness of the standard fiberglass walls. It would have to be structurally reinforced to withstand the pressure and he really couldn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t have problems with it.

All of this just sounded terrible to me.

But beyond this, I was pissed off that this was now being discussed. Why did we not know this before? Why did no one discuss the depth of the basement as a potential issue?

Unfortunately for us, it was a total breakdown of communication. We had, in fact, had a meeting, reviewing a previous drawing of the house with the septic contractor. The depth of the basement was in there. But there was no discussion of maximum depths of septic tanks and no mention that the depth of our basement was an issue at all.

A list of unpalatable choices

Nonetheless, we had to figure this out. I got on the phone with Murray, the owner of EcoSmart (and its parent company, Integrated Designs), and explained the issue to him. He is a stickler for lean construction including target cost design, planning, and communication (in fact, he gives lectures around the country on avoiding these types of problems), and he was shocked by the issue, but assured me he would help to figure this out. There has to be a solution, he told me.

So over the May long weekend, Murray, Taylor (the builder), the house designer, and I spent hours trying to figure out alternates to this septic problem. Possibilities ranged from reasonable to crazy:

  • Fill in the hole with three feet of dirt and move the foundation over – redoing all of the piles and structural slab. (No, this would be more costly then the deep burial tank.)
  • Replace toilets with composting toilets. (No, this did not solve the problem of the basement clear out drain for laundry, showers, sinks in basement.)
  • Build the structural slab up by 36 inches. (Possible, but costly and would need to take back to the structural engineer to have this approved and redesigned).
  • Use an effluent pump that literally pushes sh*t uphill. (Unfortunately, this is against the building code).
  • Move the tank.

The latter option was discussed immediately with the septic contractor, but he adamantly refused, saying that this would be impossible as the drain still had to pass under the 11-foot basement. However, we had had a topographical study done several months ago which detailed the site and the natural slopes of the land (which were impossible to see because of the mountain of dirt piled all around the house). We could see that in fact there were at least two possibilities of alternate positions. The best option being to the east of the house.

Solving the septic problem: Moving the septic tank and adjusting the grade of the land were enough to keep the project moving — but other problems await.

As you can see in the picture above, a little old outhouse (about 70 feet from the house) sits 10-foot-6 lower, which is nearly the same depth of the basement. We were going to grade and excavate from the east side of the basement anyway for the basement windows, so if we graded out a bit more then certainly we could make up the 36 inches and then some.

However we needed the septic contractor to agree to this and then would need approval from the health region inspector.

So on holiday Monday morning, we met at 7:30 a.m. at our site with the septic contractor, house builder, building company owner, and Darcie and I. After about two hours of walking the site, talking, debating, and going over the drawings, the septic contractor finally agreed that we could probably make it work.

Hallelujah!

“However,” he said, “We are going to have to do something about this dirt. This is just too much to work with. We’ll have to move it a couple times to get in here.”

All I could think was, “Oh God, how much is that going to cost?”

Moving lots of dirt, looking for a team answer

After solving the problem of the septic tank placement we were then confronted by the issue of how we were going to get all of this dirt moved.

A mountain of dirt: What to do with all of the dirt removed during excavation of the basement became a major, and potentially costly, issue.

When the excavator had originally come out, I had wanted them to bring a truck and haul the dirt to create a berm along our driveway. However, the same septic contractor had told the PM he didn’t need to worry about it. When they came out to do our septic tank and dispersion field, they would also backfill and haul – “No big deal.” This seemed strange to me (and as I write this I can’t believe how many warning signs I missed along the way). Why would you want to move dirt twice? But I didn’t question it at the time. Of course no prices were discussed. Stupid.

Lesson 1: Don’t ever agree to something without talking prices

Once he actually saw the pile of dirt, he clearly had no idea about the volume that we had been talking about. And so within a couple days, we received an “estimate” of $7,500! Wow, they just throw around thousand dollar price tags like it’s chump change.

They had dug the basement for $2,500, surely it should not cost that much to move the dirt a couple hundred feet. Again, my blood boiled. I was really coming to my wit's end with this septic contractor. But we were in deep with him: septic tank, septic mound, well hook up, water treatment, excavation/backfill, and electrical (they have an electrician on staff as well). We went with them in order to keep everything in-house. But at this point, I was feeling like we were totally getting taken advantage of.

Lesson 2: Trust your instincts

Although we had avoided the massive cost of the deep burial septic tank, we were now facing a $7,500 bill for dirt removal (plus he had added another $3,000 to the septic system for crushed rock and topsoil) and he had a +/- 10% on his bills, which did not feel very comforting given how things were going.

Murray, our new project manager, requested a meeting of all of the trades to try to sort out pricing, improve coordination and communication, and to get everyone on the same page and working to the same goal: a house delivered as designed, on time and and on budget (no simple task). As the meeting developed, we quickly recognized that the septic contractor did not at all share this goal. He blatantly stated that he “would not help with the budget.” He also demanded payment of his bills within two days (we are talking about $50,000 here)! And beyond this, he was rude, belligerent, and domineering in the meeting.

Speaking over our project manager and telling him that he could “learn a thing or two by spending a day with him” and that he had “five minutes” to finish his meeting (when the meeting had just begun). It was really an amazing thing to behold. In my head, as this was all unfolding and I was getting madder and madder, I wanted to stand up and tell him he was fired. To get out. But at the same time, I thought, then what? We have to find new contractors for all of these jobs! That could delay the project by weeks! Maybe they will be the same price in the end?

But I did say something, not exactly what I really wanted to say, but it was close. I essentially explained that the lack of communication to date (with him of course) had caused prices to rise and now had put us over budget. We needed communication and coordination and everyone was expected to be involved. To my surprise, he shut up, for the most part.

The meeting went on. All of the other trades were excellent. Very knowledgeable and had a wealth of great information, thoughts, and discussions. I only wished that we had done this process right off of the bat, before we started any work.

Lesson 3: Have a coordination meeting before you start your building

As we left the meeting, I was happy about the other trades but still fuming about the septic guy. I said to the PM, “I want him off of the job.” We have to get rid of him. I do not want to pay him a single cent.

Lesson 4: Being a jerk can cost you $50,000

Fixing the dirt problem

The dirt, which should have been moved on the day of the basement excavation, threatened to cause a variety of problems. Not only did it look horribly ugly and blocked what used to be our pristine river view, but it also threatened to interfere with access for a septic pumper truck as well as a water truck we would need to haul in drinking water.

Framing could not begin until the dirt was moved and backfill complete. Meaning there could be huge delays if we could not get someone in quick. And we still hadn’t confirmed anyone to actually do the work — there were estimates of anywhere from 10 hours to 24 hours of work to move the dirt. When you are paying upwards of $400 per hour for all of the equipment, that is not reassuring.

All and all, I was stressed.

New contractor, new day. An unexpected piece of good news arrived in the form of M&L Backhoe Services, which in a single day backfilled and graded the site to get the project back on track.

That is until I met Murray Perehudoff, the owner of M&L Backhoe Services. He was highly recommended from our builder. We explained the situation to him — how we had been screwed by our former septic/backfill contractor and were in a bind. Murray was willing to come out the following day and take a look at the situation. I was super-impressed (we are out of the way where we live). He checked it out and thought it would likely take one day of work! He could also do the septic system for us — two days tops, he said. (I’ll remind you that Mr. A-hole had projected 8 days for septic install, backfill, and dirt hauling).

“Wow!” I said, “When can you start?”

“I could probably move some other jobs around and be here on Monday for you.”

Like this Monday? OMG, that was exactly the day that Mr. A-hole and his crew of buffoons were supposed to have come out! What a savior.

If this worked out (and his price was reasonable) we wouldn’t lose any time on the project. And if it went as quick as he thought, well, we would gain five days! Could it be true?

As if it could not get any better, he had a quote to us by the next morning. Not only was it reasonable, but it was 15% lower than the original quote from Mr. A-hole. We had decided to forfeit our septic deposit, grudgingly. But having the slightly lower quote balanced out this loss.

By Monday at 8 a.m. they were ready to go. That day felt terribly long. All I wanted to do was to get home and see what they had done, how it looked, and (hopefully) to alleviate my concerns of spacing.

And wouldn’t you believe it, by 4 p.m. they were done! All of the dirt moved, a berm created along the driveway, the basement was backfilled and the site graded. I have never been so excited to see a flat piece of dirt before.


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Image Credits:

  1. Kent Earle

1.
Mar 17, 2016 2:11 PM ET

Business as usual
by Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia

Kent:

Prepare yourself now for further misadventures and assaults on your wallet.

I have built two houses. On the first one I had numerous problems with subcontractor "miscommunication," which I also attributed to not providing enough information, guidance, or oversight. For the second house, I worked up a detailed list of specifications and guidance for the builder and subs and made sure too spend as much time on the site as humanly possible while also continuing to work my day job. But nothing really changed in terms of subcontractor performance. It was a struggle from Day 1--and at least your foundation contractor didn't put the house in the wrong place!

I suspect there is a reason certain types of individuals go into residential construction.


2.
Mar 17, 2016 2:24 PM ET

To Steve Knapp and Kent Earle
by Martin Holladay

Steve and Kent,
In my experience, most owner-builders underestimate the value of the services provided by a general contractor (GC). If you hire a competent GC, the GC will schedule the job, communicate with subcontractors, take responsibility for all the work on the job site, and provide a warranty.


3.
Mar 17, 2016 5:59 PM ET

Martin: I take your point
by Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia

Martin:

I take your point that even well-informed homeowners are at a disadvantage when dealing with construction projects and subs. For us, building a house is a novel and likely not-to-be-repeated experience.

Kent:

Do you think the septic contractor had gotten himself into a bind on another (or several other) projects? Making such a big deal out of what is really a slight glitch seems suspicious. All that bluster must be hiding something.


4.
Mar 17, 2016 8:12 PM ET

General contractors and septic subcontractor
by Kent Earle

Martin - We did have a "construction manager" and a "project manager" working on our job. I was simply highly involved - I did not take over the general contracting work until finishing stages. Nonetheless, it's amazing the issues that can be run into with subcontractors.

Steve - It's funny you should ask as - shortly after this whole debacle, and as we told people about it the multitude of issues with the septic contractor, we started hearing stories coming out of the woodwork. We certainly asked around before, but why we didn't hear these stories beforehand is beyond me.


5.
Mar 17, 2016 9:31 PM ET

Structural slab...
by Bill Dietze

Kent,

Since you are on pilings, how was the structural slab done? And how was the rigid insulation integrated with it? I'll have to do something similar next year, if the planets align properly, and I'm looking for examples of what is done and what shouldn't be done. I have the worst clay!

Any details would be most appreciated.

Bill


6.
Mar 17, 2016 10:50 PM ET

Builders
by Malcolm Taylor

You can have horrible problems with sub-contractors. I hear horror stories all the time. But the frequency of the problems is in inverse proportion to how often you build. None of the builders I know run into these types of things regularly. Partly that's because they tend to know who they are dealing with, and have weeded out the poor subs. And partly it's because managing construction is a skill, which means it takes time and experience to learn. Home-owner-builders are at a disadvantage in a process they only imperfectly understand, just as an average person would be if they tried to enter any other profession, like opening a restaurant, buying a commercial fishing boat or dentistry.
Stand around the coffee machine at the contractor's desk of your local lumberyard and listen to the stories from the other side. The mistakes you are supposed to make good because they were done innocently by someone who doesn't know any better. The things you take for granted a CG has thought about that you realize the owner isn't even aware needs to be done. How far do you step in to help? How much of your margin do you eat, because someone tells you this is their dream?


7.
Mar 18, 2016 12:06 PM ET

Edited Mar 18, 2016 12:07 PM ET.

Code of Hammurabi
by Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia

Apparently, Hammurabi was the first dissatisfied building customer.

If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.

If it kill a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.

If it ruin goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.

If a builder build a house for some one, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.


8.
Mar 18, 2016 7:33 PM ET

Subcontractors
by Aaron Gatzke

I agree with Malcolm. A good GC will have weeded out bad subcontractors... generally. We started off with a good GC but he handed off our job to an inexperienced manager so we ended up firing them after running into too many problems. I ended up acting as our own GC. The disadvantage of a homeowner is that a subcontractor thinks they can BS you. I only hired local with a strong presence in our community. I was probably batting about 75/25 with subcontractors with most being responsible. It helped that I was able to handle any requests to keep the job running smoothly. Being a retired carpenter also helped.


9.
Mar 19, 2016 1:47 PM ET

Structural slab and GCs continued
by Kent Earle

Bill:
The builder put a void form of foam underneath the structural slab between the pilings and also around the outside to minimize thermal bridging. Unfortunately it is really tough with pilings to ensure NO thermal bridging as the concrete wall must sit on the structural form which sits on pilings every 8' or so. Therefore, there is some potential for thermal bridging between the concrete piles to the structural slab to the walls. We did our best to minimize this with the void forms, the under slab insulation of 8" and the 8" of foam on the outside of the concrete walls. Perhaps one of the experts here could provide further details? But how to prevent thermal bridging from the pilings themselves - that's tough.

In regards to GCs and subcontractors:
As I said, I was not a homeowner-contractor, simply an interested and involved homeowner (we did do the finishing ourselves later).

We hired a project manager, but after the debacle with the septic subcontractor we asked him to step down. I have some empathy as he simply did not have the experience to recognize where a problem could develop - working with septic contractors in rural areas is different - and not common if you are used to working in urban areas. Nonetheless we lost faith in him after this. The owner of the building company we'd hired stepped in for us and took over the project manager role after that.

I will also say that one of the big challenges (and major sources of frictions and frustration) was building a house that was not your "standard" run of the mill, inefficient home. There is a growing movement of green building, clearly, but there are only a small handful of GCs in our area at least that "get it". The PM/GC that ended up taking over our project "got it." But that is no guarantee that subcontractors, used to working on "standard" houses understand the importance of certain aspects of green building.

For example, in this instance, the septic contractor, did not understand that we were putting 8" of foam under the slab and that the structural beam and I-joists would be within the envelope of the house - all of this effected the depth of the basement, and he did not draw the connection that this would mean a deeper basement then he had worked with before. Had the septic tank depth been known as a limiting factor for us then we would not have dug as deeply and instead would have graded the land up as a result later on.

On GBA, you are all very knowledgeable in green building as GCs, architects, and subcontractors (or interested home owners such as myself) - but we (if I can include myself in this) can live in a bit of bubble. Nearly all of the subcontractors we met required a significant degree of education on green building - some are interested in it and some just want the pay check so they will do it - but it is hard to find those ones that appreciate it and care enough to learn it (although I think this will change). Conversely, some care, but when they might work on 1 eco-house and 20+ other standard houses in a year - well, they may still not "get it."


10.
Mar 19, 2016 2:50 PM ET

Kent,
by Malcolm Taylor

I don't want to belabour this but neither of the two major problems you describe appear to have anything to do with this being an energy efficient build, nor do they fall into the category of problems which are hard to anticipate.
Knowing the elevation of the lowest plumbing fixture in a house and how it relates to the sewage disposal system, and having a plan for what you intend to do with the fill from the excavation are Building 101. They are things that as a GC I deal with on every job without meetings or usually requiring input from subcontractors.
Perhaps your reference to the problems of educating subs in what matters during a green build refers to other things that happened later in the process, but so far all I see is the GC dropping the ball.


11.
Mar 19, 2016 3:28 PM ET

Sewage pump against code?
by James Morgan

We have installed macerator pumps on several jobs as retrofits. All kosher, to code and fully inspected. Is this a regional thing?


12.
Mar 21, 2016 8:34 PM ET

Dropping the ball
by Kent Earle

Malcolm: I completely agree with you. That is exactly why we fired the project manager (acting GC) and replaced him.

James: I think it is a thing in Saskatchewan area. I don't know why mind you.


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